Ending the Poverty of Dignity

September 16, 2020
  • Bob Chapman
  • Bob Chapman
    CEO & Chairman of Barry-Wehmiller

I don’t ever remember a time during which I’ve been more concerned about the future of our country.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic and social unrest eclipsed our lives and dominated our news outlets and social media channels, I spoke often of my concern about the epidemic of leadership malpractice prevalent throughout our society and the effect it is having in every aspect of our lives.

Now, we find our country in the midst of a level of discourse more toxic and divisive than I’ve ever witnessed and it is contributing to levels of conflict, anxiety and stress that have become unsustainable.

We are more divided by issues than united in purpose.

Last week, my friend Bill Ury, sharing similar concerns, called me to explore how to heal the brokenness of the current environment. Bill is the co-founder of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation and co-author of the international bestseller “Getting to Yes.” He is one of the world’s foremost experts on conflict resolution and has spent almost 30 years helping opponents in tough negotiations find common ground. Bill has visited Barry-Wehmiller to experience Truly Human Leadership. 

In our exchange, I shared my perspective: When 88% of the people who have jobs feel like they work for an organization that does not care for them, they do not feel valued. They feel used for someone’s else gain. In business, in politics, in our neighborhoods and communities, so often, people are not treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. In turn, it is difficult for those who do not feel cared for to care for others.

How do we solve this epidemic of anguish our society is experiencing?

Bill and I both agree that it begins with listening. True empathetic listening, where one actually hears the other person’s words and feelings. A listening that builds empathy, as it allows us to see things from others' perspectives. It is the key to all meaningful relationships, as it shows that you respect and care for the person you are hearing.

Several years ago, when Bill visited Barry-Wehmiller, he saw firsthand how the course we teach on empathetic listening was having a profoundly positive impact both inside our company and on our team members’ personal lives. The course has proven so powerful that we are now bringing it to communities and outside organizations through the nonprofit my wife Cynthia and I founded, Our Community Listens, and through Chapman & Co. Leadership Institute, our leadership consulting firm.

At the time, Bill called it “the answer to world peace.” He saw a company trying to facilitate caring as an organizational practice. As he and I spoke the other day, we know it’s the antidote to the epidemic of anguish in our country right now.

The morning after our conversation, Bill shared an editorial by Thomas Friedman of the New York Times that elegantly captures the essence of the message we have been sharing with the world:

Humiliation, in my view, is the most underestimated force in politics and international relations. The poverty of dignity explains so much more behavior than the poverty of money. People will absorb hardship, hunger and pain. They will be grateful for jobs, cars and benefits. But if you make people feel humiliated, they will respond with a ferocity unlike any other emotion, or just refuse to lift a finger for you. As Nelson Mandela once observed, ‘There is nobody more dangerous than one who has been humiliated.'

By contrast, if you show people respect, if you affirm their dignity, it is amazing what they will let you say to them or ask of them. Sometimes it just takes listening to them, but deep listening — not just waiting for them to stop talking. Because listening is the ultimate sign of respect. What you say when you listen speaks more than any words.

Care is the cure, as my friend Tony Schwartz once said. How do we care? By listening.

And as Carol Bruess of St. Norbert University recently told me, “Deep listening is the antidote to, and the antithesis of, humiliation.”

I don’t believe these problems in our country can be solved by the government. The government can’t mandate empathetic listening or care. It’s a much deeper, complex problem that isn’t about legislation; it’s about the way we experience each other. As I wrote two years ago, what we need is a human revolution in our country and in the world:

The Industrial Revolution was never about allowing people to express their gifts fully. It was about value creation. The assumption was that good paying and steady jobs with benefits raised the standard of living and would create the foundation for happiness.

That’s the piece business has missed and that’s the piece we’ve found on our journey at Barry-Wehmiller. People are capable of doing amazing things if we just give them the environment in which they can discover, develop, share, and be appreciated for their gifts.

The Human Revolution is about organizational leadership reconnecting with their own humanity and recognizing the humanity of those they lead. Recognizing that the people within their span of care are not numbers on a spreadsheet that are part of the calculations that equal profit and loss, but someone’s precious children and should be treated accordingly. Recognizing that the people within their span of care are not just functions, but whole beings who are capable of so much more than the role they are pigeonholed into.

When we treat people with respect and dignity and create opportunities through which they can realize their potential and be appreciated for it is how we, in business, can fix the broken American Dream.

We can balance economic value with human value, where everyone benefits.

As we reflect on the growing anxiety, depression and cultural unrest in our country, we must quickly become united in purpose by looking beyond our differences to see the beauty in every precious life. Empathetic listening allows us to see our common ground.

Another New York Times article by Kate Murphy from earlier this year also captured the value of listening:

When was the last time you listened to someone? Really listened, without thinking about what you wanted to say next, glancing down at your phone or jumping in to offer your opinion? And when was the last time someone really listened to you? Was so attentive to what you were saying and whose response was so spot on that you felt truly understood?

We are encouraged to listen to our hearts, our inner voices and our guts, but rarely are we encouraged to listen carefully and purposefully to other people. Instead, we talk over one another at cocktail parties, work meetings and even family dinners. Online and in person, it’s all about defining yourself, shaping the narrative and staying on message…

But people typically don’t want you to solve their problems, much less ignore or minimize their feelings. They just want recognition, understanding and, above all, acceptance.

If our educational institutions and business organizations taught the skills of empathetic listening, if we became leaders instead of managers, if we embraced the important responsibilities of leading those in our care, we could see beyond this world of anxiety and tension to the better world we imagine and know is within our grasp!

What can we do right now, right this moment to begin the change? Listen. To your family, friends and co-workers. To people you don’t know. To people who are different than you are. Expand your circle of care and help others feel cared for.

That’s how the revolution to end the poverty of dignity begins, with care.

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